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The rise of the ‘Super Sheros’

From Katniss Everdeen to The Powerpuff Girls – we take a look at the return of girl power.

20 years ago, the Spice Girls burst onto the UK music scene, single-handedly spreading the ‘girl power’ message across the country. They may not have been to everyone’s taste, but Scary, Sporty, Posh, Ginger and Baby embodied female empowerment for a generation of young women.

But while the charts have been full of successful female singers since then, on the big and small screen – and in particular when it comes to action heroes – the ladies have taken something of a backseat. Until now.

Over the past 12 to 18 months, there’s been something of a resurgence when it comes to what can only be described as kick ass female role models in film and on TV. Retail is now picking up on this trend, and so is the licensing business.

From Katniss Everdeen, the crossbow wielding heroine in The Hunger Games trilogy to Marvel bringing its female characters such as Black Widow and Captain Marvel to the forefront of its plans, the triumphant return of Wonder Woman and the Star Wars franchise introducing strong female leads in Rey (The Force Awakens) and Jyn (Rogue One), women are most certainly back on top in film.

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And the trend is being seen in animation, too, notably with the hotly tipped return of The Powerpuff Girls and the arrival of DC Super Hero Girls – both of which have received strong early feedback from retailers and licensees.

“The Powerpuff Girls was arguably the first superhero property for girls and one of Cartoon Network’s most enduring original series,” Johanne Broadfield, vice president, Cartoon Network Enterprises EMEA, comments. “Underneath their cute exteriors, each of the girls had a strong, original personality and that made them heroic as individuals and, as a team, an unstoppable force.

“The market had been dominated by pink and princesses for such a long time and there was a clear opportunity to re-introduce a new generation of girls and boys to the crime fighting trio.”

Licensees seem to agree – in the UK, partners are on board across apparel, accessories, homewares and stationery. They include Posh Paws, Blues, Forbidden Planet, Branded Clothing International, Smith & Brooks, C&M Licensing, Corsair, Blueprint and Roy Lowe among others, with products launching from spring/summer 2017.

“When The Powerpuff Girls first launched in the Nineties, there was perhaps a trickle of social interest in girl power, but we’ve all seen this become a mainstream current of cultural conversation,” Johanne continues. “The entertainment industry has very much tuned in to that cultural conversation and licensing is reflecting that trend.”

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Warner Bros. Consumer Products had also noticed this cultural pick up and, working with the DC universe, has a range of strong female characters which appeal across the age groups.

Last year, it revealed it was teaming up with Mattel and Warner Bros. Animation to create the DC Super Hero Girls franchise. Aimed at six to 12 year old girls, the brand hits all touch points – from toys and consumer products, through to digital content, TV specials, a mobile app, website and made for video releases.

Product began to launch earlier this summer and interest from retail has been high – Tesco and Shop Direct both told LSB at the Licensing Awards judging day that they were looking forward to the brand arriving.

“DC Super Hero Girls offers girl-engaging powerful characters in a super hero world that helps build character and confidence, and empowers kids to discover their true potential,” says Julian Moon, svp at WBCP EMEA. “Each character has their own storyline that explores what teen life is like as a super hero, including discovering their unique abilities, nurturing their powers and mastering the fundamentals of being a hero.”

Julian believes that the characters – which include Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy among others – “demonstrate great range, representing strength, equality and intelligence, which is something audiences seek.”

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The appearance of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice set the internet alight earlier this year, and the character will star in her own film in June 2017. WBCP is playing its cards close to its chest for now when it comes to the licensing programme, but it’s safe to say that potential exists across a wide range of categories. In addition, the licensor also has a variety of products for Harley Quinn, who was undoubtedly the star of Suicide Squad this summer and also features in DC Super Hero Girls.

As Johanne pointed out, what’s happening in the licensing world is often a reflection of real world trends, and this is certainly true of the rise of the female empowerment message. The UK has a female prime minister for the first time since 1990, and the US could elect its first ever female president today (November 8).

This is also something that Ashley Eckstein, the founder of fangirl merchandise line and lifestyle brand Her Universe, agrees with. “I definitely think that has something to do with it,” she says. “Representation is so important. Most people need to see something with their own eyes before they believe it.”

Social media has also played its part, says Ashley. “Fans spoke up and demanded change. Now with a single tweet or blog post, a fan’s opinion or request can get all the way to the top. Studio heads are reading their pleas for representation and for more strong female characters.”

The success of Wonder Woman, Katniss, Harley Quinn and DC Super Hero Girls among others will ultimately open the doors for more strong female characters, across all aspects of the media and the licensing business. As Ashley puts it: “I always knew that the female audience was there and I took the approach of ‘if you build it, they will come’. Now, the female audience is considered to be one of the fastest growing categories.”

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Behind the Mask

Preschool girls want to be action heroes too, as the reaction to eOne’s latest property, PJ Masks, is underlining.

PJ Masks is based on French author Romuald Racioppo’s picture book series, Les Pyjamasques. It features three hero characters – Cat Boy, Gekko and Owlette.

The reaction to Owlette (or Amaya in her everyday, none pyjama-clad super hero life) – and indeed the reaction from preschool girls in general to the show – has meant that eOne is now catering to boys and girls when it comes to the licensing and merchandising programme.

“PJ Masks was first created purely as an action series for preschoolers; it didn’t set out to be either focused on boys or girls,” Andrew Carley, eOne’s head of global licensing explains. “For some time, there has been a demand for a show that has a degree of pace that features action heroes specifically targeted for preschoolers. The feedback has shown a fantastically good reaction to the female characters in a way that we didn’t foresee.”

This will now be reflected in the licensing drive – product in the core toy line already catered to both boys and girls, with vehicles, figures and elements of role-play, while more imagery that appeals to girls is in the style guide.

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Fantastic fangirls

US-based company Her Universe is the first licensed merchandise line and lifestyle brand that caters exclusively to female sci-fi and fantasy fans, or ‘fangirls’.

It was created by Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, after she struggled to find merchandise which was made for women.

“I was stuck shopping in the men’s and boy’s sections if I wanted a Star Wars shirt,” Ashley tells LSB. “I did my research and found out that close to 50% of all sci-fi and fantasy fans are women and 85% of all consumer purchases are made by women. I thought, I’m not a mathematician, but those numbers are not adding up. If they made merchandise for fangirls, we would buy it! I thought that someone had to do something and change the stereotype that this genre was just for the men and boys – it’s for everyone.

“I had to start my own company and apply for a licence, but Lucasfilm was very supportive and gave me the opportunity.”

As well as Star Wars, Her Universe now stocks and creates apparel and accessories featuring the likes of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Marvel and Transformers, all designed especially for fangirls. The company has recently been acquired by Hot Topic, meaning further expansion is on the cards.

This feature originally appeared in the autumn edition of Licensing Source Book. Click here to read the full publication.

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